When our daughters were little, they used to enjoy hearing Dad tell them bedtime stories. I told a tale about a giant playground slide that reached into outer space that seemed to hold their attention for quite awhile. Narratives about a certain wicked witch seemed to delight them, too. At this season of the year, though, Dad would tell his young charges fanciful accounts about Santa.
For a time, our kids had no questions about Santa. They did have concerns, however. Did we put the stockings up near the chimney so that St. Nick could fill them with candy? Did we put cookies and milk out as an expected show of hospitality for the holiday largesse being brought into our home? These concerns began to fade as the children grew; questions of a suspicious nature began to take their place.
How is it that Santa gets into a residence if the house has no chimney? In those cases, does he have a universal key that admits him? And what about security systems? How does St. Nick disable them without tripping the silent alarm? (Well girls, he does -- somehow.)
Then there's a more global question. How is it that Santa gets all around the world in one night? One man, one team of reindeer, six billion people on multiple continents. (Dad prizes critical thinking, but he wishes his kids would just go with the flow here.)
Where I lost my daughters when it came to Santa was by providing an answer that stretched credulity a step too far. (Girls, Santa gets all over the planet because he can stop time. He doesn't stop it for a real long time because food in the refrigerator might spoil. That's how he does it. Once a year, time stops all over the world and that's how he can do what he does on Christmas Eve.)
At some point, I couldn't hold Santa together for my children. The beloved tale is too fantastic to withstand the crucible of close examination. There's another story out there, though, that I'm not willing to let go -- not for my kids, not for anyone.
But it's an incredible story, no doubt. A young girl of indeterminate age is told she will bear the Savior of the world, the one who will save his people from their sins. And the father is -- wait for it -- the Holy Spirit. The familiar narrative washes over us each Christmas. We expect to hear it, we listen to the details, but we don't examine it too closely. The story told at Christmas about the DNA of Jesus of Nazareth is the justification for what the church has taught about him for two centuries. He is fully God, yet fully human. Only a being such as Jesus could go to the cross and accomplish salvation for humanity. Christmas, therefore, has a lot to do with Good Friday.
The story of Jesus' coming into the world, with a human mother and a divine father, is incredible, even fantastic. No argument here. I choose to believe it. And unlike the St. Nick tale, this one I won't let go.
Dr. Jeff Long teaches religious studies at Southeast Missouri State University and is administrator of the Foundation and assistant director of marketing at Chateau Girardeau Retirement Community.